Leshiba Mountains Retreats.
Date: 26 June 2021 By: Anton van Zyl
The Soutpansberg has many treasures, often taken for granted by its residents. The mountain itself has a unique character, unlike anything else you will find in the country or even in the world. This exquisite beauty and the diversity of plants and animal species have, for decades, lured tourists from across the globe.
The past few decades saw tourist facilities developing that focused on this international market. The visitors, mostly from European countries, did not mind paying a fee to be spoilt while relaxing in one of the most scenic surroundings you will find in the world.
At the beginning of 2020, the tourism industry worldwide shuddered to an abrupt halt. The Covid pandemic brought with it travel restrictions and isolation periods. Almost overnight, bookings made months and even years in advance were cancelled and once-busy lodges were left empty.
For months, the travel and other restrictions meant that even local tourism was near impossible. The international tourism model was one that relied on offering five-star service and facilities, often out of reach for local tourists. It also meant an influx of capital into the local market, which is necessary for growth and job creation.
One of the Soutpansberg’s most exquisite tourism treasures is Leshiba Mountain Retreats, nestled high up in the mountains, some 36 kilometres west of Louis Trichardt. Leshiba is a protected reserve and offers a variety of wildlife, including leopard, giraffe, zebra, as well as various antelope and bird species.
Leshiba Mountain Retreats traditionally focussed on the international tourism market as a place where visitors could relax with massage therapies, go on game drives and guided walks and break away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.
But Leshiba is one of the tourist establishments that suffered a terrible blow because of the pandemic. “I remember we had guests coming in from the Netherlands,” recalls Kathryn Straughan, the general manager at Leshiba. They turned out to be the last overseas visitors for a long time. What followed was a period of uncertainty, of not knowing exactly what the dangers were for staff as well as visitors. Cancellations started to stream in, and everything came to a halt.
“We had to retrench 11 of our employees, which was devastating,” says Kathryn. This was heart-breaking because, in a small and isolated community, finding other jobs is near impossible for them. Many of the secondary industries, such as the companies providing services and goods to the lodge, were also severely affected.
The situation continued for months, during which time the lodge was effectively moth-balled, with the work limited to maintenance. As the months dragged on, Leshiba’s team decided to use the opportunity to renovate their self-catering facilities as well as upgrade the old farmhouse into a new luxury venue. They realised that the revenue model would have to adapt.
“We’ve reworked our whole model of what we were offering,” says Kathryn. They started to focus on the domestic market, encouraging residents to explore and realise what South Africa has on offer. “There are such exceptionally beautiful places on our doorstep,” she says. Guests at Leshiba are encouraged to explore nature on their own and even walk down the path of history, where the guided archaeological trail offers an enlightening and mystical venture into the past. This trail leads you past ancient Rock Art sites, where paintings between 200 and 2000 years old can be found.
Kathryn is hopeful that the situation will change again in the not-so-distant future. She explains that South Africa’s travel restrictions for international guests are not what stifles the industry. “When travellers return to their country, they are forced to isolate,” says Kathryn. This means that a two-week holiday may turn into a month away from work, which is simply too long for tourists.
In a somewhat strange twist of circumstances, one of the Soutpansberg’s internationally acclaimed tourism jewels has now become accessible to South Africans. To encourage the local tourism market, Leshiba is offering a 50% discount off their rates. For residents of the Vhembe region, an added bonus is given – an extra 10% off.
Leshiba can truly be described as a dream venue that has everything that can be expected from a tourism destination with a distinctively “local” flavour. Wood carvings from the region’s top artists, such as Noria Mabasa, Thomas Kubayi, Owen Ndou and David Murathi, are on display. Guided tours to visit these artists can also be arranged.
Their new business model means that a unique opportunity now exists for local people to experience the beauty of the mountain at highly affordable rates. For more information, visit Leshiba Mountain Retreats’ website at www.leshiba.co.za.
Anton van Zyl has been with the Zoutpansberger and Limpopo Mirror since 1990. He graduated from the Rand Afrikaans University (now University of Johannesburg) and obtained a BA Communications degree. He is a founder member of the Association of Independent Publishers.